Series Info...Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #149:

It's Not Fair!

by Shannon Appelcline

Last December I reviewed a kid's board game called Lord of the Rings. It was a nicely produced and nicely thematic game that was pretty standard kid's fare. You had to get your pawns from the left side of the board to the right side of the board by rolling a dice, then moving the appropriate number of spaces.

However, there was a bit more depth to the game too. In particular, Nazgûl and other encounters could slow you down at certain locations and you could also get paralyzed by the power of the Palintirs at the deadly Dark Towers.

The main encounters were fine. Each enemy had a certain number of life cubes, and each turn you spun a spinner and removed 0-3 cubes, slowly whittling your opponent away. The battles with the Nazgûl could be more annoying, because you had to spin a spinner and get a "red eye", a one-in-four chance, to have any affect on the Nazgûl. The Palintir, however, were the most evil of all the task resolutions in the game.

When you were stuck in a Dark Tower, your opponent took a Palintir in one of his hands, and you had to then pick a hand. If you picked the Palintir, you remained entranced, and were stuck for another turn.

Now, as I said, I was playtesting this game back in December--with another adult, as it happens, as I didn't have any kids about to do a true kid's review. We played a bit and my opponent got stuck in a Dark Tower. My opponent was someone I know pretty well, and so I was quite able to intuit which hand they were going to choose each turn, and so I kept putting the Palintir in that one. Once, twice, three times they picked the Palintir--with no end in sight.

At this point I reminded my opponent of a forgotten rule, that a "friend disc" could be expended in order to get out of a Dark Tower for free. My opponent, annoyed that they'd been stuck in the Tower for so long, picked up the disc and threw it across the room.

At which time I came to the conclusion that kid's board games just aren't fair.

Fairness in Games

This marks, I think, a real difference between kid's games and adult games.

Kid's games tend to be unfair, I think, to give everyone an equal chance of winning no matter what their skill level, and that makes some sense give the rapid increases in cognitive development from year to year at that time in our lives. More fair games would result in older (or more developed) kids always beating younger (or less developed) kids, and that wouldn't be a lot of fun. There would probably be even more piece throwing and board flipping than was seen at my house last December.

Conversely, as we grow older we're taught that skills and accomplishments lead to rewards (such as winning a game). Or, to look at it from another direction, when we're young our moral center is fixated on simply wanting to win, while as we grow older we learn that there are more nuances to competition, and that there are times when it's appropriate to win, and, yes, that there are times when it's appropriate to lose.

In other words, we decide upon personal principals of fairness.

Before I move on, I'll offer a caveat: the level of fairness that people expect in a game depends upon how serious of a game players they are--and thus how much they expect to be rewarded for their skill. The casual gameplayers, or what I call the family gamers, like a blend: some luck, some skill. Games like The Settlers of Catan, Pirate's Cove and others support this level of fairness, while more popular games like Clue at least give the illusion of the same. The more serious the game player, however, the more skill-based they expect a game to be for it to meet their own criteria of fairness. Entirely analytical games like Chess are clearly at the extreme--and in between Chess and Clue there is a wide spectrum.

However, more concretely, almost any adult game player will shudder at the level of unfairness found in my Lord of the Rings game or kid's classics like Chutes & Ladders and Candyland. Thus, when you're designing a game you need to carefully consider what ratio of luck, chaos, and skill your players will consider fair--and also how to accomplish this.

In this sections below, I've outlined some of the biggest practices likely to make a player scream "It's Not Fair!" and thus some of the elements that you need to consider most carefully when you're designing a game. I should note that I'm in no way saying you should avoid all of these things, because sometimes you're going to be making games for the family demographic, and sometimes for the only medium serious gamer (e.g., me). They're just things that you should think about.

Unlimited Failure

The most unfair design that you can include in a game is the opportunity for unlimited failure. This element showed up in two places in my Lord of the Rings playtest--in spinning to banish the Nazgûl, and in drawing for the Palintir--and it was what really pissed my opponent off.

Compare this to the jail in Monopoly, where you have to roll doubles to get out, but you're also released on your third turn. Yes, there's opportunity for randomness there, and for failure, but the random rolls can never result in infinite failure.

Whenever you have a die roll, a spinner spin, a random number generation, or any other random element that doesn't hold memory, you have the chance for unlimited failure, and that should be avoided by most games.

(Conversely, some random elements can hold memory, such as a card draw. If you're stuck in Jail until you draw a spade from a deck of cards, you won't be able to fail more than 39 times, and your chance of failure drops each time as you pull other cards from the deck; conversely, trying to roll a "1" on a 4-sided die has a flat 25% chance of failure every time, and after each failure, your chance of failing again is exactly the same.)

Unbridled Randomness

I want to be clear here in saying that I'm not objecting against innate randomness. Unless you're designing a super serious gamer's game, randomness is fine, and will fit into most people's definition of fair. However, there are some situations where excessive randomness can ruin a game for some people. One of those is the situation of unlimited failure, which I just described, whether another is unbridled randomness.

In other words, a little bit of randomness is a fine thing, but a lot is too much. Consider, for example, Chutes & Ladders. In that game you can get almost to the end, then hit a chute that takes you back to almost the start. Conversely there's at least one real long ladder which basically gives you the game.

Unbridled randomness.

When I consider randomness I think of it as a percentage: what part of a game is skill, versus what part is random. For chess, the ratio is close to 100% skill / 0% randomness, while for Chutes & Ladders that ratio is entirely reversed. Personally, I like games where the randomness is somewhere in the 10-20% range. More than that, and it starts to feel a little too unbridled for me (personally); less, and I have to think too much, and the game stops being fun.

Unjust Results

By this I mean simply: people who are doing well should win and people who are doing poorly should lose. If that's not the case, you have unjust, and thus unfair, results.

I recently saw this while playing a game called Reiner Knizia's Samurai. That game has a really opaque scoring mechanism, where your victory is determined upon majorities of resin figures won, but in tie-breakers goes over to all kinds of different counts. The end result: it's not very intuitive.

Last time I introduced someone new to the game, they were somewhat disgusted when they discovered that they ended up in last place according to the scoring, even though they thought they'd been doing well throughout the game.

Sometimes, as in this case, feelings of unjustness can result from incomplete understanding of the rules (or just overly complex rules). In other cases it can result from genuinelly unfair rules. Whatever the reason, it's a problem.

Unrecoverable Loss

My last category for unfair game design is the opportunity for total loss. And, by this, I don't mean the option of getting wiped out of a game. That's perfectly acceptable in many games, particularly if it's understood from the start.

However, what can feel more unfair is if the loss is an all or nothing sort of thing. In a game I played a couple of weeks ago, which I didn't particularly like, called Smugglers of the Galaxy there's an entirely fair option for loss: you can get attacked by other players, and every time they do, your ship loses a point of hull. If that happens 5 times, your ship is destroyed and you start over. It's entirely cruel, but it's gradual, and thus fair.

Conversely, a game which I adore, called Carcassonne has very unfair rules for total loss of some elements of the game. There, you use your wooden figures to control fields, cities, and roads; you can mark up many points, particularly in fields which keep getting added to until the end of the game. But, if someone else manages to sneak into your field before the game-end you can potentially lose all of your points. I don't personally mind (It meets my definition of fairness), but one of my regi;ar opponents finds it unfair, and so when we play we use a variant rule to get around this issue.

Applicability to Online Games

I've outlined four broad areas of potential unfairness in games: unlimited failure, unbridled randomness, unjust results, and unrecoverable loss. They're all things you should watch out for in your games.

Though I've used as my examples a number of board games I've played over the last year, don't think that strategic games are the only games which can fall prey to these issues. Any MMORPG or other online roleplaying game is just as vulnerable.

Think, for example, about the typical game where "dying" just results in you losing a bit of stuff, if that. That was the result of a designer deciding to take the option for unrecoverable loss of his game. Even in your RPGs, which are often slightly less mechanistic than a strategy game, you need to think about fairness, and ensure that your game meets the criteria to a level that will please your expected audience.

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